Athens play

The unsuspecting Walter Brandt (David Young), a construction worker by day, settles in for a relaxing evening of watching television and savoring snack food in the Henderson County Performing Arts Center’s production of “Movie Nights.” He is surrounded by 1920s film characters, from left, Little Pearl Palmer (Christina Bicket), Desmond Haverly (John Smith) and Theda Falzone (Dirje Smith).

Palestine stars as a literal backdrop and more in much of the Athens Henderson County Performing Arts Center’s comedy “Movie Night" running today through Sunday. The last of the season’s Black Box Series, the multi-medium production is written and directed by the HCAP’s resident playwright Robin Haynie.

“The multi-media mix will allow audiences to experience a raucous physical comedy on stage,” said Haynie, “along with not one, but two classic silent movies and a collection of crazy commercials onscreen.”

Most of the silent movie portions of the play were filmed in historic Palestine. Knowledgeable audience members will immediately recognize Judge James and Karen Parsons’ Victorian home and the Texas State Railroad Depot and Park.

“When we originally decided to renovate our house, we did it with the idea of not only turning it into our home, but into a place to share with our community.” explained Karen Parsons. “Being a part of a movie set never entered our minds,” she added with a smile.

The site of many community soirees for non-profit organizations like the Palestine Library Friends and the Palestine Junior Service League, the Parsons’ well appointed home was featured in the most recent edition of Horizons Magazine. For the first time, the Parsons agreed to open their home in the interest of theatrical arts.

“Mrs. Parsons was incredibly enthusiastic and very helpful,” said John Smith, who is doing triple duty during the show by serving as assistant director, location wrangler, and actor. Scenes were filmed in the mansion’s drawing room, in front of a stained glass window, in an upstairs sitting room, and in the bar.

With the support of General Manager Capman Boaz and Marketing Manager Lori Pennington, the cast and crew of “Movie Night” also traveled to the Texas State Railroad for more filming.

“We couldn’t have asked for better assistance than from Cliff Rich,” said Smith. As the Palestine Depot Supervisor, Rich helped to coordinate scenes on the tracks, inside a passenger car, and in the park woods.

Location was not all that Palestine contributed to the play. Thanks to Karen Montalvo, proprietor of Sidney’s Costumes, the women in the play were dressed in appropriate period gowns.

“Movie Night” unfolds as Walter Brandt, played by David Young, goes about his ordinary life. He spends his days as a construction worker and his nights avoiding the dangers of life with his number one and number two enjoyments--old silent movies and junk food. He is blissfully unaware that he is in for the adventure of a lifetime when he settles in to watch the 1924 classic “The Gilded Cage.”

The heroine of the film is Little Pearl Palmer, played by HCAP newcomer Christina Bicket. Amazingly, from her side of the screen, Little Pearl can actually see Walter and concludes that his quiet life is just the ticket to escape 85 years of playing the innocent ingénue. After she literally reaches out to Walter, the hero quickly learns that nothing is what it seems. Adventure, treachery, and hilarity ensue as Walter tries to set things right on both sides of the screen.

Little Pearl, the damsel in distress, is pursued by a dastardly duo of villains. The evil Desmond Haverly and his partner-in-crime Theda Falzone are played by real-life husband and wife team John and Dirje Smith.

Through the Smiths there is yet another connection to the Palestine. The couple lived in and contributed to the town in a variety of ways before moving to Athens several years ago. Longtime fans of the Palestine Community Theatre and of the Palestine Library Friends’ melodrama and Murder on the disORIENTed Express™ fund-raisers remember and appreciate their considerable acting and musical gifts.

In fact, Haynie admits that she based the character of Theda on Dirje’s self-proclaimed alter-ego the highly opinionated and totally unapologetic “Helwig the Buddha Frau” complete with German accent.

David Young, the play’s erstwhile hero, also has ties to Palestine. In 2001, he directed and acted in the Palestine Community Theatre’s summer production of Greater Tuna.

Speaking of talent, the versatile “Movie Night” cast of four also assumed the personae of two-dozen characters needed for the television commercials.

“Wait ‘til you see the commercials,” said Smith. You are just going to howl!”

Joining the cast in cameo roles for the commercials are a number of local Athens celebrities including Mayor Randy Daniel and Athens High School Principal Keith Durett.

“We have always been fortunate at the theater to have great community support,” said HCAP Executive Director Dennis Gilmore. “This time the support has spilled onto the stage and we are very happy about that.”

Today and Saturday evening performances begin at 7:30 p.m. and the Sunday afternoon matinee starts at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adult and $10 for students. Contact Paige for reservations at 903-675-3908. The Henderson County Performing Arts Center is located on 400 Gibson Rd. in Athens.

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